On a sultry September afternoon at M.M. Roberts Stadium, the University of Southern Mississippi just about did enough right to knock off a visitor from the Southeastern Conference.
But the Golden Eagles did more than enough wrong to come up short.
The University of Kentucky scored 14 points off Southern Miss turnovers, and the Golden Eagles ruined any reasonable end-game opportunities with a bevy of poor penalties as the Wildcats held on for a 24-17 victory before 22,761.
“Tough loss, hard fought loss,” Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. “I felt like we played well and just didn’t execute on some things, had some turnovers and some problems with our eyes at times but I felt like as a whole we played pretty hard-nosed football.
“We might have outgained them by a hundred (yards), but guess what? We made some mistakes that led to turnovers and touchdowns, and we just need to clean it up.”
In the 2017 season opener for both, the Golden Eagles outgained the visiting Wildcats 364 total yards to 254 total yards, took 78 offensive snaps to Kentucky’s 55 and limited Kentucky to just 78 yards rushing.
But the Golden Eagles could not overcome:
Three lost fumbles, including a 20-yard, sack-and-scoop late in the third quarter that provided the Wildcats’ winning points
“They were very big,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “We talked about how we had to win the turnover margin. The defense creating the turnovers was very big.”
A first-quarter sack-and-strip that set up a 14-yard Kentucky touchdown drive.
A 48-yard kickoff return/personal foul penalty that set up a 37-yard touchdown drive.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a first-and-15 from Kentucky’s 8-yard line with less than 5 minutes to play, followed by a defensive holding call on third-and-11 from the Kentucky 31 with about 3 ½ minutes to play. Both penalties gave the Wildcats first downs and forced Southern Miss to burn its last two timeouts.
Three penalties on USM’s final punt return, including two, block-in-the-back penalties, as well as an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a Southern Miss assistant on the sideline. That left the Golden Eagles on their own 4-yard line with 1:37 to play and no timeouts.
“At the end of the day, I feel like we should’ve won the game,” said Southern Miss defensive lineman Rod Crayton, who finished with five tackles, including 1 ½ tackles for loss, and forced a fumble.
“But the game of football is all about execution and we have to execute every play and play with the best of your ability to get the win. I think we showed we’re very physical and we can play. We can play with anybody. We just have to get better week in and week out.”
Southern Miss played two quarterbacks, with sophomore Keon Howard starting and playing all but one snap in a first half that ended with the Golden Eagles trailing 14-3. Howard completed 7 of 14 passes for 87 yards.
Redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs, who took the final snap of the first half, started the second. He completed 15 of 26 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns, both to his former Greenwood High School teammate, Korey Robertson.
“I tried to stay positive,” Griggs said. “Told everyone on the offense to stay calm, stay relaxed. We’re going to do this together. I just tried to lead the team the best way possible.”
Robertson finished with a career-high 111 yards on seven catches and logged his first-ever multi-touchdown game with scoring catches of 42 yards in the third quarter and 26 yards in the fourth.
“Korey is a playmaker,” Griggs said. “He’s a big receiver. He’s got a big body and incredible hands. I’ve never seen one person tackle Korey. We’ve been playing together since I was 7 years old and I’ve never seen one man tackle him one on one. Never.”
Redshirt freshman Quez Watkins also broke the century mark receiving, grabbing four passes for 103 yards.
Allenzae Staggers, who in 2016 became just the fifth Golden Eagle to reach the 1,000-yard receiving mark in a season, was held without a catch Saturday.
“Quez], he had a couple big catches, another freshman that is going to be a special player,” Hopson said. “Korey had a good game, but certainly like to see the ball in Allenzae’s hands a little bit more and get a few more catches but sometimes that’s just the way to ball bounces.”
The Wildcats, in general, also bottled up the Southern Miss ground game, and specifically, senior tailback Ito Smith.
Smith, who rushed for 173 yards and a touchdown against the Wildcats last season, was limited to 37 yards rushing on 16 carries. Smith did grab a game-high and career-best nine passes for 78 yards, giving him 115 all-purpose yards.
But Smith also lost a fumble near midfield after taking a shovel pass 19 yards for a first down, short-circuiting the immediate drive after Southern Miss had cut its deficit to seven points early in the fourth quarter.
Southern Miss dodged an early Kentucky threat when quarterback Stephen Johnson II hit tight end C.J. Conrad for a 58-yard gain to the Golden Eagles’ 4-yard line.
But on first-and-goal, Snell was stripped of the ball by Crayton and safety Tavarius Moore gobbled up the Golden Eagles’ first takeaway of the season at USM’s 3.
“Us turning it over down in there early was disappointing,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “We’ll get that fixed.”
Kentucky’s pass blitz got to Howard late in the first quarter with linebacker Josh Allen sacking him and forcing the ball out, with defensive end Denzil Ware recovering the fumble at the USM 14.
The Golden Eagles held for two plays, but on the first play of the second quarter, Johnson trotted into the end zone on a third-down quarterback delay/draw to give the Wildcats a 7-0 lead.
Southern Miss responded with a 14-play, 82-yard drive that included a 47-yard pass from Howard to Watkins down to the Kentucky 5.
But USM lost 4 yards on second down, a third-down pass fell incomplete and the Golden Eagles settled for Parker Shaunfield’s 22-yard field goal.
Any momentum dissipated on the kickoff.
Sihiem King sliced across the grain and raced to the USM 48, where he was hauled down by his facemask. The personal foul set up Kentucky at the USM 37, and the Wildcats needed just three plays to score, with Johnson finding Conrad again down the seam.
The 23-yard touchdown pass gave the Wildcats a 14-3 lead at halftime.
Southern Miss went 85 yards on six plays early in the third quarter, with Griggs throwing his first career touchdown for the Golden Eagles and cutting Kentucky’s lead to 14-10 with 10:40 left in the third quarter.
But a gamble with a fake punt from the Kentucky 45-yard line came up far short, and the Wildcats drove far enough to set up Austin MacGinnis’ 41-yard field goal for a 17-10 lead with 2:03 left in the quarter.
On the ensuing possession, safety Darius West speared the ball from Griggs’ hold as he rolled to the left side, sending it shooting back to the USM 20-yard line. Ware scooped up the loose ball and rumbled into the end zone to send the Wildcats ahead 24-10 with 49 seconds to play in the period.
Griggs and Roberts connected again to cap an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive at the start of the fourth quarter, but the Golden Eagles could not get out of their own way down the stretch.
Kentucky running back Benny Snell, a 2016 SEC All-Freshman team selection, was limited to 67 yards on 20 carries. Johnson completed 11 of 20 passes for 1767 yards. Conrad led the Wildcats with three catches for 97 yards.
“We lost,” Griggs said. “It’s a bad feeling. I wish we could’ve won it. We left some plays on the field but we’re to continue to get better.”